New Delhi: Ruth J. Simmons, president of Brown University in the US, is in India on a visit during which she met human resource development minister Kapil Sibal.
Simmons, the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution, is seeking to expand a student exchange programme with St Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Simmons, whose visit follows cabinet approval for a Bill that seeks to allow foreign universities to set up campuses in India, will also address students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Your visit must be prompted by the (foreign universities) Bill.
Oh, you can be sure it is prompted by the Bill. That is big news.
What are you looking for?
We are here for a number of reasons. First of all, the importance of India today on the world stage requires all of us in university life to be attentive to what’s happening here and to have the advantage of partnerships with higher education in India. That’s because we want our students to be aware of India, Indian politics, Indian economy, Indian culture and values, and so forth. Because one can’t imagine an educated citizen of the world today not having sufficient knowledge of India.
Nailing the issue: Simmons says that a rote system is very useful and desirable for certain narrow fields, but does not do as well in solving those cultural and social issues that need solving. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
Secondly, we have always had partnerships with Indian institutions, we want to strengthen those and expand the number of partnerships that we have with India’s higher education. The reason for that is quite straightforward. We learn an immense amount about what we should be doing in the United States by visiting other systems of higher education.
I am particularly interested in the success of India in certain scientific fields, the success in recruiting students, in retaining students in certain scientific fields such as engineering. As you may know, our problem in the United States is the decline in the number of students entering engineering fields.
You’ve mentioned expanding your partnership with St Stephen’s.
We’ve had an exchange since 1991. The idea for us is to see if we can expand on that in whatever way makes sense for them and for us. Generally, when we start a partnership, it may begin with student exchange, but it may extend to other things. It may extend to a department to department cooperation, it may extend to faculty visits. My notion is really for collaborations not be limited to even these kind of exchanges.
Post-recession, I got a feeling not many universities are looking to open campuses in India.
No, not at all. Major universities will not do that to a very significant degree.
The reason is for the most part, if you are in another country, they (the students) don’t want a second-class programme. If you come, they want a first-class programme, which means they want the same faculty that you have back home, they want the same course material, they want everything to be the same.
By and large, it is very difficult for universities to replicate what they have in their own countries. If you ask your faculty to travel back and forth, that’s pretty imperfect, often faculty don’t want to do that. You end up with faculty who are not vetted in the same way that your campus faculty is vetted.
It is very important when you come into another country to demonstrate respect for the educational system in that country, to demonstrate equality of standards. I think for the most part, people will still want to have collaborations. You know, collaborations are wonderful because that sense of equality is very strong in collaborations.
Your students come to us, our students come to you. Your faculty are engaged in research on this project and so are ours, and that equality is very apparent. It is much harder to do that trying to set up an entire programme unless it grows out of collaboration.
There is a lot of criticism of our higher education. Of it being a rote-based system.
You may find you have to make certain adaptations to your education system to accompany the fact that you are a world leader.
A rote system is very useful and desirable for certain narrow fields. It can bring people up to speed pretty quickly, it can make sure you have a basic level of knowledge for certain industries. What you will find that it does not do as well is solve those cultural and social issues that need solving. What does India as a society want to be? How do you unite the historic parts of your civilization with where you are going today? Does it mesh? What about your relationship to the rest of the world? These are very significant questions and people who think deeply about these issues need to be a part of the leadership of society. If they are not part of leadership, you are great technologically, but you will find you are not able to build that common vision.
How do you feel about the poor? Do you have fundamentally an ethic that says every member of society has a right to advance? Or, will you be an elite society? These are great moral dilemmas. You will not deal with them by putting in place a rote system where people memorize certain things and learn to perform certain tasks.